Yellow Switch Palace [chapter 1] – David Bingham

When I come to, my head is on my wrist, and my wrist is on the window, and has fallen asleep so many times during the bus ride that it’s starting to flutter when I reach for things. Through the window, muted December light puts a shine to all kinds of things. For instance: my hoodie is stained, the pockets on either side of its zipper spangled with dark, cometary smudges somehow invisible to me when I took it off the hanger this morning. Out of the fabric, hazy likenesses form, mashed up sigils and animal faces which seem to grow and change as the evening wears on, a little bit under every street lamp.
        The girl, the flautist, is asleep next to me, her jean jacket tucked all the way over her face and behind her head so she looks like a kind of trendy ghost. “Are you in a fraternity?” she asked after getting on. Her voice was so hoarse I almost couldn’t hear it. For a second I just sat there. She must have other voices, I thought, then answered that no I was not in a fraternity, at which point she sat down next to me and started listening to house music with a pair of wrap-around headphones.
        This has been the full transcript of our conversation. I know she plays the flute because the case is in her lap and every time we hit a bump it knocks into my ribs. And even though she’s asleep, I find myself getting self-conscious about these stains, whistling softly to myself, trying to rub them out.
        Exley left a note on our fridge this morning, telling me he opted to take a plane home. He owes me for the extra ticket in my bag. Sometimes when Exley’s on the other side of the room, I tighten my fist and pretend that if I never let go he’ll do what I want. Right now I just want my money back. I make the decision to change the wallpaper on my phone, and to try and not use too much data, or consider him, Exley, stretched out on an empty flight deciding whether or not he wants another ginger ale. But when I shut my eyes I can see him still, looking down out the cabin window, scanning for patterns in the empty tree trunks.
        By the time we pull in to the city, it’s no longer snowing, but the chill as I step off is bone deep. Hands shaking, I collect my duffel bag and move along with all the other winter-break derelicts down toward the metro. Around us traffic rolls downhill in a childish, stilted pattern, like someone playing a piano using only the black keys. I find myself focusing on little things: construction signs, bird tracks, the crosshatched underside of a streetlamp. I could just be drying off from the mental soup of sitting on a bus for twelve hours, but there’s something else here. Though the walls and windows all hum with familiarity, there is a borrowed and inaccessible quality to everything. A kind of double vision playing out before me with the sights and sounds superimposed noisily over the fixed mental map I have of this place.
        I stop to take a look around. The snow is a half an inch at most, but it’s enough to cast a glare. When I crouch down to light a cigarette, flute-girl passes me by, her high-tops sketching into the frost a neat, perfectly segmented arc. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen her before today, but my school is just small enough to fuel the illusion that all strangers are familiar, that it’s just a matter of pinning them down. I watch as the girl descends noiselessly into the tunnel, and after I finish smoking, I play a little game where I try to walk only in her foot-steps.
        Thirty minutes later when I arrive at the slope of my driveway, I stop to check the mail. There’s nothing in particular I’m looking for, but it feels good to have some bills and junk mail under my arm as I make my way up the gravel. Something tethering me to the house. I approach the front door and, having knocked three or four times, my eyes catch on a small paper square wedged between the doorbell casing. In my hand it seems to pop open, two pages printed on my parents’ letterhead, signed by the both of them. The first thing it says is that they called, and that my mom has a client emergency in Annapolis, and that the key is in the soil of a fern on the patio. I skim the rest.
        “Hello?” I yell when I open the door, testing my voice out in the open air. When no one answers I set all of my belongings down in the doorway and sit on the couch. For a while I just kind of stare at my stuff. Then I go to work.
        I’m not two hours into my paper when Evan knocks. He keeps knocking until it’s clear I’m not going to let him in, and then he opens the door for himself. “I didn’t know you were here,” he says. “I called,” he says, “what’s all this?” He wipes his shoes off.
        Evan is my next-door neighbor, two years my junior. Evan is in the middle of a gap year. Time must seem like an ocean to him. When I was a senior in high school, he was just a brat on the tennis team who had good weed, whose sister was dating my brother. But I haven’t smoked in a year, and now my brother is unaccounted for, so right now our connection is tenuous at best.
        I’m sprawled out Indian-style on the rug, with a half-moon of dog-eared library books and worn out pieces of legal paper strewn across the carpet. This is my final paper for Commodities, the last days of the Yukon gold rush. By now all the prostitutes have left for Nome, and all the hotels are long-since boarded up. The paper is about two thousand words from being done, and by the time I’m finished explaining all of this to Evan he’s got a kind of far-off look in his eye like he’s on a ski lift.
        “I’m making coffee,” he says, blinking rapidly, “do you want some?”
        I don’t protest. I rarely do. “Don’t use the grounds on the counter,” I call after him, “use the ones in the back of the spice cabinet.”
        “There’s nothing but spice in the spice cabinet,” he says, a few seconds later and at a normal volume.
        I sit for a minute with the pen in my mouth, but my leg’s already asleep so I just get up and go join him in the kitchen. We stand for a while in front of the spice cabinet. There is a kind of false gravity here, like we’re looking at a diorama of “the way things used to be.” But these are spices you can find in most any cabinet in North America.
        “Huh,” I say.
        I find the good coffee in a tiny cabinet above the fridge, a cabinet I don’t think I’ve ever opened. When I turn back around, I look down and see Evan fingering the note my parents left me. If I was going to take out a big red pen and try to fix all this, going backwards now, I might start here. The night in question, when you think about it. How I let him into my house but forgot to throw out the note.
        “You know,” says Evan, “I’ve been talking with a friend of yours. Orange hair. Really loves those nickel bags.”
        “Ingrid,” I say.
        “That’s right. A real optimist.”
        I shrug.
        “Anyways, she told me she was in the neighborhood.”
        “Yeah,” I say. “That’s where she lives.”
        “Well, maybe I heard something about some people coming by. Have you talked to her?”
        There are a few reasons to hate Evan, but I think the best is probably how efficiently he triggers my passivity. I used to think it was a virtue, passivity. I’m not sure if I know better now, but I definitely dislike Evan more than ever.
        “How did you know I’d be here?” I say.
        Evan brings his hands down magnanimously over the countertop. “Just two, maybe or three people?”
        I start to walk away. In the reflection of my front door window-pane, the door still hanging open, I see Evan cough into his elbow. Right now he’s anticipating what I’m going to say, which is another pet peeve of mine, because I am a predictable person. Which is to say that I like Ingrid, but I know what will happen if she comes here.
        “I’ll keep a lid on it,” he says. “I’ll take her cell phone battery as collateral.”
        This is a proposition.
        This is an invitation to my own home.
        I don’t say anything.

( ( (

Piper is the fourth person to walk in, which is a cynical move on Evan’s part. Naked political animus.
        “What are you doing here?” she says.
        She tiptoes carefully around my notes, then leans down to give me a hug from behind. Her arms are thin, skeletal but for her bracelets. I finish typing out my sentence and, turning to answer, find her gone already. After a moment she rematerializes in the doorway, a glass of wine hanging off her wrist.
        “Hi,” I say.
        Piper smiles approvingly, then tunes me out. Which is just as well because I have nothing to say. But I watch her French braid dangle as she paces the edge of my study-fort, texting someone, neurotically proofreading what must be a multi-paragraph text message, and it puts me in a good mood. “What is all this.” Her back is still turned to me.
        “I brought my work home.”
        “Why do you have two cups?”
        “You have two cups of coffee and one of them is empty. They’re right next to each other.”
        Two more people come in and take a quick left out of my eyeline.
        I yell Evan’s name.
        “I don’t know,” I say. “I guess I like to watch them stack.”
        I talk for a little bit about the paper but she’s not really listening. Eventually she puts her phone into her bag and picks up the prompt. “History tutorial three thirty-four, Commodities and the Americas. Ka-ma-di-tee.” She sounds the word out like a grade-schooler, still speaking in the bullshit finishing school accent she puts on sometimes. Like the word “darling” stretched out to an entire dialect.
        It could be my imagination but I think she used to do it better. She stares into the ceiling fan and finishes her glass. She’s still going through my papers. She reads the outline I have and smiles a little bit. “You should have done rubber,” she says. “Rubber is savage.”
        “I did rubber. Now I’m doing gold.”
        “Well, you went in the wrong order then.”
        When I turn back to my screen there is a knock at the door and she goes off to answer it, let somebody in. Vampire rules, is the thing to remember here. It’s only thirty minutes before I’m crowded out entirely. Ingrid Maxwell’s phone world. Like magic how quickly she works. There must be at least fifteen people in here. Tennis shoes, pantlegs, low itches they have to bow down to scratch. This is my point of view. The ankle of the room.
        Out of spite I refuse to relocate, instead cracking the storm windows behind me to try and let the wind take care of some of the more grating noises. Time passes in cups. Spinning dimes in the instant before they lose momentum and snap flat on the tabletop.
        My first time seeing Ingrid tonight was through a doorway. She was literally standing at the center of a circle of people, like the dial on a watch: “What does an open house mean to you? Is it a sailcloth? Is it the Overlook Hotel? Are they all just the same? These candleholders have purple bottoms. People are afraid to sing in the shower. Why is that? Who is going to see them?”
        That was maybe ten minutes ago. At this point the room has mostly cleared out and I’m still in here typing. There’s not much time to go now, give or take however long I need to properly format and upload the document, and more than that it’s getting harder to tune out all the fuzz. I can tell it’s going to be close. Still, I shouldn’t oversell this. Things are kind of automated at this point: I rip a few more quotes from the book I have open, rephrasing them now in stiffer, dumber prose, then mashing it all together in a kind of say-nothing mayonnaise amalgam.
        By the time I look up at the clock again there’s only twelve minutes to go, and I’m missing just a half a page. Ingrid reminds me of one of those darkly euphoric skulls-engulfed-in-flames you find in video games or else hair-metal iconography from the late eighties, I think. At this point the room has emptied out but she’s still in here, over in a quiet corner by the thermostat where some guy in a basketball jacket from the Quaker school is trying to get with her. He has this little ottoman pulled up next to her like a side-car, and while his arm moves slowly across the rim of her chair he’s telling her all about his dog, who is dead.
        But Ingrid just sits, not really blinking, peripherally absorbing this guy’s attention while she vapes and taps out something on her phone, all such a pitiful scene that I can’t help but eavesdrop: “It was supposed to be routine surgery,” says the kid, shifting his body a little bit except for his arm. His tone is kind of skewed. It sounds maybe like he’s bragging, or at the very least unsure how to tell the story. “Rotator cuff,” he says. “They had this like, flannel bedspread over him and the woman pulled it back before she even told us. She said he had a heart attack.”
        Ingrid looks up. She exhales a thick cloud from the corner of her mouth, which quickly balloons to the ceiling, obscuring the light fixture. The kid puts his hand on Ingrid’s kneecap, and Ingrid says she has to pee. Suddenly I feel something cold on my neck. When I turn around the couch is covered in a thin layer of frost. In conclusion, I type, which is of course the worst way to begin a conclusion.
        Once I’m finished submitting my paper I move toward the kitchen, where the air is like syrup and stinks badly. Inside, people I recognize but do not know move around the room in curlicues, reaching for an equilibrium. At length, I shuffle over to the island countertop, where this guy who almost burned down the school once by lighting a soap dispenser on fire is thumbing through a cookbook. As I watch him flip through the pages, I fantasize about total control. I’ll go out for a cigarette, I reason, and then I’ll kick everyone out.
        “Do you remember me?” I say to the arsonist. “I stopped smoking pot.”
        Out on the porch though, I realize I don’t even have a lighter. I’m about to double back when I see a dim figure rising up from the incline in my driveway. In the darkness I make out the blocky contour of Exley’s crew cut. He’s wearing a yellow parka and some sweatpants, which is the same thing he was wearing the last time I saw him. Noncommittally I salute him with the back of my hand, while overhead the chopping blades of a helicopter begin to issue from somewhere nearby.
        “You didn’t tell me there was a party,” says Exley. In the cold I realize again my wrist is still tender and not quite functioning.
        “It happened organically,” I say. “Like a fungus.”
        At my request Exley reaches into one pocket, then another, eventually producing a lighter. After my cigarette is lit, I hand it back to him and he takes out a one-hitter. I’m about to ask him how his flight was, but instead I say: “Do you know anyone who plays the flute?”
        “I know lots of people,” he says in a kind of yawn, the smoke flitting out of his mouth with each syllable. Then he takes out his phone and I hear a familiar chime. A golf simulator he’s been playing as of late. Instinctively I back up onto the porch and begin to watch over his shoulder while I smoke. It’s a little hard to read. He’s in some special mode where it’s just the putting, and he has the camera really far zoomed in so you can’t see the edges of any of the greens. They all just look the same, these greens. Only the topology is different.
        A few holes in, I hear the front door open. “Boys.” Piper is walking barefoot and carrying her heels in one hand, which she loves to do. Exley looks up and then back down while she kisses him on the cheek. The helicopter, which is almost out of view, takes a turn and comes back around. In my neighbor’s yard across the street I see a spotlight go on. Piper has her arms folded over her chest. “I wonder who they’re looking for.”
        “It’s whom,” says Exley.
        “No,” she says. “It’s not.”
        “Apples and oranges,” he says.
        Suddenly it’s clear to me they’re not sure if they’re still dating. Probably they haven’t seen each other since coming in to town. I wonder if my being here is making this easier or harder. Suddenly I’m hungry.
        “I passed the new development on my way in,” says Piper. “Where they used to have the dog park and the gray building with the little green arcs?” She points at me. “Your mom used to work in that building.”
         I’m really hungry now.
        “I saw maybe three lights on in the whole complex.”
        “It’s residential?” says Exley.
        “The new development.” She draws a finger across her eyebrow. “Somewhere in the space where that building is,” she says. “I used to do karate.”
        I say “hamburgers” quietly to myself and with little conviction.
        “There are three major real estate developers in this area and all three of them own a third of it. There’s a plaque on the front of the building with a bunch of re words. Reclaim, revitalize,” when she’s trying to remember something Piper looks like she’s nervous someone she doesn’t want to be seen by has recognized her from across the room. “Recreate,” she says.
        “You pulled over to read the plaque.”
        “I thought it was historical.”
        “Do you guys want to go?” I say.
        They look at me.
        “Go where?” says Piper.
        I reach my hand inside the now empty pack of cigarettes and drag it back and forth across my chin as if applying shaving cream. “I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know any of these people.”
        “I just got here,” says Exley. Soon an SUV pulls up, and a short guy in cut-offs gets out, then runs around the side of the truck to open the door for his girlfriend. Without warning, a helicopter spotlight pings the top of the driveway and the two of them are frozen in its adamantine glare. I can see panic welling up behind the kid’s eyes, but the light goes off and after a spell it dissipates.
        “What gives?” says the kid, still a little jittery as he walks up. He looks like he’s about fourteen. I realize I could do it. I could do it right now, tell him to turn around and get the fuck out.
        Instead, I just say, “Tell Evan they’re looking for him.”
        Later, but not that much later, on the far side of the shed, a fire burns brightly in the fire pit, obscured at turns by people moving back and forth on the grass. Everyone seems kind of meshed together, a many-limbed shadow, conversing with itself in sign language. I’m watching this through a window on the second floor, when I realize I haven’t touched my drink at all, so I finish it quickly. I pace down the banister then out through a side door, and as I walk through my breath over the mulch, I turn a corner and some drunk girl knocks into me. She’s very tall, a nightmare almost. My eyes are only a little below her teeth.
        “Hey, I saw you,” she says. It takes a few second for me to put space between the words.
        “Yeah, in the pictures. You live here.”
        “Yeah,” I say.
        She gestures with this little matchbook she’s holding, all across the yard. I think it’s a matchbook. “You sure have a lot of friends.”
        I shrug. It’s a misnomer. Really my only friends here are Piper, Exley, Ingrid, and all of Ingrid’s friends.
        “Thanks,” I say.
        As I pass her by, I get a strange impression like that didn’t just happen. Like it was just a dream or a story I made up to amuse myself, which is kind of daunting so I put my finger on the spot in my hoodie where the girl spilled a little of her drink and suck in a deep breath. The closer I get to the fire, the more people start moving away from it. The scene has an almost religious quality, given how many people there are but how it’s relatively quiet.
        I take a picture of the crowd and start fooling with the colors, and when I turn the contrast all the way up, I see that Piper has beaten me out here. In the picture I notice she’s regarding someone just off camera with a perplexed, almost vulnerable look that I’m not used to seeing on her face. Slowly I pocket my phone and start rotating my way outside of the crowd, until Piper comes out from behind the flames and into my line of sight.
        I still can’t see who she’s talking to, and I can’t get any closer because of some fat kid who’s drunk and high in front of me like a wall. I can tell it’s another girl though, standing next to Piper and that she, like Piper, is also on her phone. But that’s all. The other girl’s features are obscured almost totally by the cowlick of blonde flame rising up in the distance. And it’s funny. The image that comes to mind now is something perverse, like a parasite, tearing into the skin of a fruit. But in the moment, it’s nothing quite so sinister: before I turn to leave, I take one last look and what I see is the two of them in profile at the edge of my vision, one very slightly ahead of the other.
        And what it looks like, without any of the malice, the hindsight, is just a person, stretching out of another person.
        Like someone was tracing Piper and another girl just stepped out of her shadow.
        Fifteen minutes later I find her back inside, alone on a loveseat, flipping through the notes for my paper again. I approach slowly.
        “Who was that out there?” I say.
        Piper smiles first, then looks up.
        I’m immediately sure she knows what I’m talking about.
        “Who was who?”
        I consider showing her the picture and then become self-aware. Piper drinks her drink. Most of the night I spend following in the shadow of the party. Picking up things that have been knocked over, cleaning up here and there, but mostly just trying to keep to myself. Some sort of abstemious exercise that I can’t quite account for. This is the kind of thing that happens when you start drinking too late in the night. Everything just gets sour, no matter how much you have.
        It’s a little after two now, and the snowfall is getting pretty heavy. Out in the yard the fire has become dim, a few orange dog-ears poking up out of the embers. Who was who. If I asked her again would she tell me?
        Before I know it, I’m back in the kitchen feeling sick. I only remember a few things beyond this point. After drawing a glass of water from the tap, I find myself standing across from Piper and Exley, who are in turn standing one at each shoulder over some drunk guy who’s playing that wooden triangle game with the pins they have at Cracker Barrel sometimes, which I didn’t know we had. The guy doesn’t really notice them, and they don’t really notice me.
        When Exley reaches out a hand to tap on the guy’s shoulder, Piper grabs him by the wrist. “Don’t talk to him,” she says. “It’s cheating to talk to him.”
        One of the pins has fallen into the tongue of the guy’s sneaker and is clearly visible. I have only one more drink.
        “Every commodity makes its mark,” I say to Ingrid at one point, wondering if she can tell how fucked I am. “If you have bananas, you have plantations, railroads with air-conditioned cars. If you have rubber…” I lean against a potted plant and try to find something stable to look at.
        “It’s good to see you,” she says, punching my wrist. “Where have you been?”
        “Haha,” I say. I go to throw up. Who was who. Vampire rules. So I’m on the verge, not even sure I can make it to the bathroom, and all the way there I’m politely ducking, dodging people like I’m on the subway, but when I finally do swing open that door, something funny happens. Inside I find Evan, merchant prince, abuser of the royal we, already heaving like a dog into the toilet bowl. He’s doing these big sizzling gurgles like someone carpet bombing a little lake. Suddenly my stomach feels just fine.
        “I tried to feed your cat,” says Evan, wiping his mouth between bouts. “He wouldn’t eat.”
        “He doesn’t like big portions,” I say.
        So maybe I know why I let him around. I still remember that book they made us read in middle school: The Whipping Boy. A good one. I stand still in the door-frame but am sure to close the door almost entirely so no one will wander in and ruin this. I don’t say anything to him. I just stand. The last thing I remember before passing out is throwing my hoodie in the washer along with three or four cups of detergent.
        Early the next morning, I am relieved to discover most people are gone, but for Exley, who I find curled up like a fetus on the couch. When I ask him if he wants a cigarette he just says no, no. “Lighter,” I say poking him. “Lighter.”
        I’m still putting on my coat when I hear a popping sound coming from the bathroom in the den. With caution, I approach and press the door hinge using my index finger. The opening widens to reveal Piper, standing a little too close to the mirror, not a hair out of place. I can see that she’s flossing, but I can’t think of anything else to say.
        “What are you doing?”
        “Today,” she says. “Awoha forsa tininaashp.”
        Piper spits into the sink.
        “First day of my internship,” she says.
        It’s then that I notice her outfit. She’s wearing a long beige skirt and has one of those visitor badges hanging off her arm. The kind you get so they don’t immediately tackle you when you try and enter the capitol building from the side.
        “It’s Sunday.”
        “Andrew, what do you think Gloria Vanderbilt is doing right now?”
        “Church?” I say.
        She takes a hairbrush out of the little brown toilet kit she has with her. I first met Piper in a table sports class in the ninth grade. In the beginning I assumed she was bulimic, because she would excuse herself at the same time every day to go to the bathroom. And when she returned, she would always be breathing into her hand and then smelling it. I didn’t discover that she was leaving every day to floss until the end of the term, when she told me point blank: the people who floss three times a day are the people who rule the world. Seeing her now, guiding the brush through her hair like a homing missile, in the most ruthless way someone can complete such a banal task, I could almost believe such trouble might be worth it.